The rise in plastic pollution during Covid-19 crisis

Scientists have been warning us about the impacts of plastic
pollution for decades.

By Farah Kabir and Anhara Rabbani
Oct 30 2020 (IPS-Partners)

Ever since the pandemic began this year, countries across the
globe have been striving to protect their people from the virus
through various preventive measures where protective gear also
known as PPE are in high demand. On the contrary, this has
dramatically increased the unsustainable use of plastic posing
significant risk for the environment. Personal Protective Equipment
(PPE) which includes masks, gloves and goggles have become
indispensable plastic products for everyone currently witnessing
the coronavirus pandemic. The global health crisis has given rise
to the consumption of PPE at a staggering rate, which is considered
a shield for combatting the virus. PPE is playing a key role in
protecting people, especially the frontline workers, who are
fighting day and night to cure millions of patients ever since the
outbreak started. This has led to some tough questions for those of
us who are continually advocating for environmental protection and
sustainability— how are we going to manage the devastating impact
of plastic waste generated due to Covid-19?

The worldwide lockdown during the pandemic initially led to
positive change to the environment. Reduction in air travel and
road transport brought significant drop in the daily CO2 emission
level across the globe. However, an unsurmountable challenge has
emerged as countries are stockpiling plastic products such as PPEs
to prevent the spread of Covid-19 virus. Growing number of
households have also been seen to hoard groceries which too come in
single-use plastic packaging. According to the World Health
Organisation, it is estimated that 89 million medical masks are
needed globally every month while the coronavirus pandemic lasts,
together with 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles
and face visors. An article in The Economist says that consumption
of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300 percent in the
United States alone. A research report has forecasted a spike in
the global disposable-mask market from an estimation of USD 800
million in 2019 to USD 166 billion in 2020. A crash in oil price
has made it easier for industries to produce more plastic as
petroleum, one of the main constituent of plastic composition, has
become extremely affordable.

Ever since the outbreak of coronavirus, billions of gloves and
protective masks are being disposed every day at a global scale.
According to a report published by Environment and Social
Development Organisation (ESDO), Bangladesh alone has generated
around 14,500 tonnes of PPE and other hazardous plastic waste in
March 2020. In order to curb the spread, healthcare workers are
mandated to wear PPE and government has ordered people to wear a
mask every time they go in public spaces. Few opted for masks made
out of fabric, but its effectiveness remains highly questionable.
As the consumption of these plastic products have become an
everyday norm for us, uncontrolled disposal of these items is
severely impacting the environment. Hazardous PPE wastes are piling
up in landfills, seabeds and oceans, further adding to the existing
plastic pollution and threatening the marine ecosystem. Used PPEs,
especially medical waste from hospitals, are also creating health
hazard for waste pickers who are responsible for collecting and
transporting the waste to the storages. The lockdown period has
given rise to online shopping and food delivery where most items
come in unrecyclable plastic packaging, an inevitable choice people
are making at this point.

Scientists have been warning us about the impacts of plastic
pollution for decades. Globally the production of plastic has
quadrupled over the years and the scientific community is worried
that if this growth continues, the entire plastic production will
make up to 15 percent of total global emission by 2050. Plastic
waste is considered one of the greatest environmental challenges
that can have devastating impact on land, wildlife, oceans and
human health. Ironically, the issue of plastic pollution has taken
a back seat during the pandemic. What we are using now to fight the
global public health crisis, is contributing to a bigger crisis.
The year 2020 was noted to be the year for climate and environment
action, where countries are said to be gearing up to take a
comprehensive and coordinated effort in addressing climate change.
Adopting circular economy was considered a catalyst for
accelerating implementation of the global agenda 2030 and became a
key interest of focus for government, development agencies and
corporations. Number of industries had started recycling
initiatives to show their commitment in protecting the planet.
However, due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic,
government and corporations are finding it hard to live up to their
commitment of sustainable practices, as it has become critical for
both parties to revive the economy at any cost. Ecological
sustainability is being given the least priority as countries are
racing to revive their economy. Many recycling businesses have been
reported to close down because of fear of contracting the virus
from plastic waste, lack of staff member and high overhead

The global pandemic has highlighted crucial gaps in our
structural system among which plastic pollution has lingered for
ages. Managing this unprecedented level of plastic waste will be a
challenge for countries, especially developing nations like
Bangladesh who has poor, unregulated waste management system that
can further trigger health risk for workers from informal sector.
The current pandemic situation has made it difficult for us to make
a conscious choice due to not having an alternative solution. What
we require is to make informed planning at different level and
timescale. During the recovery period it’s imperative that
government consider ecological sustainability as a key priority in
disaster preparedness. This also means investment in efficient
waste management system and allocating resource for research and
development. We must look into a post-pandemic recovery through the
lens of environmental sustainability and resilience, where green
initiatives are integrated within the economic stimulus package to
create a win-win situation for both economic revival and
sustainable development of the country. Most importantly, a shift
in behaviour is needed where every citizen makes conscious choice
of avoiding the use of unrecyclable plastic products in everyday
life to protect the environment.

The current crisis requires urgent government action to prevent
long term environmental risk and health hazards. At this point it
is critical that the government, along with experts and development
actors, establish a practical guideline on the usage and disposal
of PPE for medical facilities, factories, malls, shops and local
bazaars. A strict monitoring mechanism and law enforcement engaging
the local authorities are required to ensure that guidelines are
been implemented at every facility. Media can play a crucial role
in disseminating the guideline and creating public awareness. This
can also become an employment opportunity for young people to
engage in monitoring process of waste disposal at community level.
It is important to ensure health and safety of workers involved in
waste management where they are provided with PPE to protect
themselves from virus-related hazards. While a number of medical
facilities are burning the used PPEs, its critical to ensure that
these activities do not cause air borne hazards. Finally, we
strongly urge for a specially trained taskforce to oversee
nationwide management of Covid-19 related waste to prevent further
degradation of the environment.

Farah Kabir is the Country Director of
ActionAid Bangladesh, Anhara Rabbani is the
Resilience and Environmental Sustainability Officer of ActionAid

This story was
originally published
by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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The rise in plastic pollution during Covid-19 crisis
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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
The rise in plastic pollution during Covid-19 crisis